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Elections in Italy: Euroscepticism, Migration, Berlusconi, etc. Marc Lazar’s Analysis

BLOG - 20 February 2018

By Institut Montaigne

On 4 March 2018, Italians will cast their votes to renew their Parliament. 315 new senators and 630 new deputies will be appointed to join the XVIIIth legislature of the Italian Republic. Marc Lazar, Professor of History and Political Sociology at Sciences Po and President of the Luiss School of Government in Rome, shares his analysis of this election, the outcome of which is highly uncertain. 

The Italian political landscape is split between a number of parties. Why is the electorate so scattered? 

Two elements can explain this phenomenon.

  • First, a historical explanation. Italy is home to several cultures and political families (Christian Democracy, the Communist Party, the Socialist Party, etc.), all of which have disappeared yet left an undeniable legacy, and is characterized by a strong regional diversity. The country’s unity is recent and regionalist parties remain very influential in North-East Italy for example.
     
  • Then, a mechanical explanation. The voting system, single-ballot for just over a third of Parliament members, but more importantly proportional for the remaining parliamentarians, favors the dispersion of political parties.

 This great fragmentation is present both within the electorate and will be reflected in the Parliament as, according to Italian tradition, deputies can change groups after their election.

In your opinion, will Silvio Berlusconi be the kingmaker of the next election? 

It is at least his intention! Although he is not eligible given his conviction, Silvio Berlusconi plays a central role in these elections, presenting himself as the wise and responsible elder. He is no longer the extravagant Berlusconi of 1994 who founded his party Forza Italia, or that of the "bunga bunga" episode.
 
He was the facilitator within the center-right coalition - which includes his party Forza Italia, Matteo Salvini’s Northern League and Fratelli d'Italia - and could play a key role in shaping a government if the coalition won the absolute majority of seats in the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate. Otherwise, if no clear parliamentary majority emerges, Silvio Berlusconi could end his current alliance and occupy a central place in the formation of a government with Matteo Renzi’s center-left Democratic Party.
 
The former Prime Minister is however weakened: he is no longer the almighty king he used to be. Indeed, current polls credit Forza Italia with around 16-18% of voting intentions, which would be the party’s weakest result since its creation, while the Northern League and Fratelli d'Italia seem to be experiencing a major expansion. In addition, the center-right and the Italian public are shifting to the right, a trend accelerated by the Macerata events, which placed migrants at the forefront of the political campaign - before employment and taxes. The migration issue has triggered a reaction of rejection, tension and even xenophobia, and has become a significant political resource for the center-right and the Five Star Movement, which could become the first Italian party. 

What place do European issues occupy in the electoral debate? What consequences will these elections have on the future of Europe?

European issues occupy an important place in this campaign, because Italy has been facing strong Euroscepticism in the past twenty years. This trend is substantially increasing as a result of growing poverty and austerity policies, perceived as emanating directly from Brussels. Besides, Italians rightly feel abandoned by the European Union on the influx of migrants issue, and denounce the lack of democracy in Europe. Thus, from one of the most Europhile countries of the continent, Italy has become one of the most Eurosceptic: most political groups address a virulent criticism to the Union.
 
The only party to clearly state its commitment to the EU is Matteo Renzi’s Democratic Party, which in the past had sometimes criticized Brussels to try to lure in Eurosceptic voters. The latter is also inspired by Emmanuel Macron's campaign to show his ambition to play an important role in the process of refounding Europe, advocated by the French President. The Democratic Party is however isolated, and voting intentions in its favor hardly exceed 23-24%. It can however count on the contribution of its ally, a list directed by Emma Bonino, also pro-European and which, incidentally, is called Più Europa (More Europe).
 
The question regarding the consequences these elections will have on Europe is delicate and largely depends on their outcome.
 

  • In the case of a center-right government, it would be torn between those who want to distance themselves from Europe, and those maintaining traditional Italian positions regarding the Union. This would result in a short-term policy, characterized by permanent compromises.
     
  • The highly improbable scenario of an alliance between the Five Star Movement, the Northern League, Fratelli d'Italia and a minority of the left-wing Free and Equal coalition, would be the strong signal of an Italy dissociating itself from the European Union, as did the Visegrád Group.
     
  • If an alliance composed by the Democratic Party and Forza Italia formed a government - thereby breaking the current coalitions -, it would be pro-European, which would contribute to reassuring European capitals and European financial communities. Such rallying would however trigger lively reactions from both parties’ voters, potentially leading to a major political crisis.
     
  • Finally, a government formed by the President of the Republic or a "technical" government, bringing together personalities from civil society, would help to reassure Europe for a few months, before finding a suitable electoral system to allow for a second vote to define a clear majority.


Marc Lazar’s recommendations for a better understanding of the election’s issues: 

 

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